For the 102nd episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, historian Erika Pribanic-Smith uses the hotly contested 1844 presidential election to explain the partisan press era and to draw connections between that era and our own.
Erika Pribanic-Smith is an associate professor journalism in the Department of Communication at University of Texas at Arlington. Her research focuses on partisanship in the press during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Featured image: Portrait of James Birney, courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society (Image AL04101).
Erika Pribanic-Smith: There are arguments to be made that we have almost returned in some ways, some media outlets have really returned to the hyper-partisanship that we saw in the 19th century.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I am Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
Historians like to divide history into neat chunks and to give those chunks catchy names and they know better. Human history doesn’t exist in discrete pieces, but instead each event is the result of the collision of countless events that came before.
But these divisions are useful to us because they help us understand incredibly complex ideas. In journalism history, one of those chunks of time we set apart from the others is the partisan era, an era that I must admit I’ve always found confusing. It seems to have a lot in common with the era of the Revolutionary press. And when I look at the media today, I see an awful lot of what looks to me to be hardcore partisanship.
So, when researchers use this term partisan press, what do they actually mean? What did it look like? Well, joining me to sort all of this out is returning guest Dr. Erika Pribanic-Smith, associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
She explains the partisan press with the help of the 1844 presidential campaign that pitted the presses of Democrats and Whigs and the Liberty Party against one another. Later in this episode, she also helps me understand how the partisan era relates to the rising partisanship that we see in the press today. Erika, welcome to the show. So, when people talk about this partisan era, when is it that they’re actually talking about and what is it that got at that label of the partisan era?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Well, when we’re looking at the partisan press, a lot of people like to say that it starts at basically the beginning of the United States because the newspapers really adopted a political role during the Revolutionary War. You know, you had the newspapers who were you could say partisan in favor of the United States becoming its own country.
And then of course, you had some newspapers that were partisan in favor of the United States not becoming its own country and staying with England. So, the newspapers had already really adopted that role of being sort of a biased engine of advocating in favor of one thing or another politically. And therefore, naturally when the United States did become its own country and political parties began to form, the partisan era really began because you actually had these American political parties and each party naturally had newspapers that advocated for it while attacking the opponents.
If you look at some journalism history textbooks, a lot of times they’ll divide it up, section it up into, you know, neat time periods and often start the next time period in the 1830s when the penny press started and there were more independent newspapers that were independent from political parties not getting any sort of party patronage and, you know, free and able to say and do whatever they wanted. But partisanship in the press never really ended. It’s just that as the 19th century wore on, that partisanship became a little bit less prominent.
But if you read Hazel Dicken-Garcia’s very excellent book on the 19th century press, she argues that newspapers were really highly partisan throughout the 19th century. There isn’t really a neat endpoint to the partisan press era.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s interesting. And we’ll definitely have to return to that later. So, so what, what did these papers consist of then? What was partisan about them? What sorts of things were they, were they carrying? What sorts of information and who is writing them, right? Who’s writing this content? Are they actual agents of these political parties? Are they, do we call these people journalists? You know, we talk about it in journalism history courses. So, what should we think about these people?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: So, it’s interesting because at the beginning you mostly had printers who were gathering up information from other newspapers for the most part. So, if you picked up a newspaper you had – a majority of the pages were things copied from other places. It was only in the editorial column, which in a lot of papers, it was page two. You would have the editorial columns sometimes into or starting on page three. But that editorial column is where the newspaper’s unique content would be. And most of the time that would be written by the editor himself.
Most of the time that was a man in that time, although there were a few women. And sometimes there would be multiple editors, so you never actually knew who was writing a specific column. Sometimes there would be correspondence. So, the editor would have their friends or associates who were writing in to give their commentary on, on the political events of the day. But these newspapers were very politically driven.
So, when you look at those editorial columns or even what’s copied from other newspapers, it tends to be politically oriented. So of course, what’s happening in elections, what’s happening leading up to elections, as well as what are the legislatures doing, what are the politicians doing? Um, not just politically, but often personally. There were a lot of attacks, a lot of personal attacks, a lot of rumors, gossip, things like that.
And so, the main role of these political newspapers was not just to inform people of the political goings on of the day, but to persuade people to a specific point of view. So, these editors would be attached to the political parties. They would often be associated with the political parties. A lot of times they would be perhaps the secretary of the local political groups or, you know, they would even be politicians themselves.
A lot of these newspaper editors would run for office locally or for their state legislature, even for Congress, some even for president. So, they were very involved politically, and their goal was to be persuasive, to try to get people to adopt their party’s point of view, to elect their party’s candidates, and to disparage the opposite side.
Ken Ward: Well, I think that raises an important question that, that I had, and that is how much, you know, you just mentioned that the people who were running these papers were, were deeply connected with their political parties, at least locally, right? Sometimes up to the national level. So, researchers talk about these networks, right? These, these political networks of partisan papers.
How strong were these networks? Was this a top down sort of thing where you had folks somewhere creating this content and sharing it with all these papers across the country? What do these networks look like? And so, what does that term “party organ” actually mean that we see in the research so much?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Well, when we say party organ, that means a newspaper that speaks for a political party and yes, there were absolutely these networks. So, oftentimes there would be, you know, the large national-level newspapers that would feed content on down.
But more often there would be a lot of inter-sharing among newspapers in the same state or in the same region. So, for instance, I’ve done a lot of research in South Carolina, and when you see the articles that are editorials that are being shared in the South Carolina newspapers, a lot of times it’s other newspapers in South Carolina, and then perhaps, you know, some newspapers from outside of the state that were larger and had greater reach.
Ken Ward: Okay. And so, so were all of the papers during this partisan era, partisan newspapers? You mentioned the 1830s and some things kind of changed there, but you know, one big question I have is how could you actually fund a newspaper entirely with this political content? Right. So how did the money work where all of the papers work in the same way? What was the economic foundation for this, this system?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: It was patronage. So, you had the political parties supporting the newspapers. You see a lot of times, you know, there, there were some advertisements. They were definitely not the basis. There were some subscriptions. And again, that wasn’t the basis either because if you look at almost every issue of the newspaper, they’re telling people, hey, you haven’t paid your subscription. If you’re behind on your subscription, you know, please, please come and pay it. We need your money.
Um, so a lot of it was the political patronage. Some of it very official. So, you know, you see newspapers becoming the official printer of their state or the official printer of their city, their county, things like that, but even getting direct financial support from political parties, from political actors, specific politicians that, that newspapers advocated for.
The other thing is I mentioned early on these newspapers were put out by people who were printers. And so, they weren’t just putting out a newspaper a lot of times, but they were also job printers, so people could hire them to publish pamphlets, oftentimes political tracts or, or anything, you know, public print books or posters or things like that. So, a lot of times the newspaper early on, a lot of times the newspaper was not the sole business. So, they were making their money both from the political patronage and by printing other things.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. You know, one thing that we’ve gotten hung up on, you know, in conversations with students and in my own classes when we’re talking about this era is we’ll read some content from these papers and we will kind of ask like, was there an audience for this, like people actually wanted to read this type of content? Um, you read about these like personal attacks that these editors are making at one another and, and you get, okay. Yeah. Like it’s kind of entertaining to read, but who are they speaking to?
Right? Aren’t these people reading these papers already supporters of your party? Wouldn’t you expect that? You know, what, what type of audience did these papers have? Who are they talking to?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Yes, that’s a very good point. Um, so preaching to the choir a lot of time because, you know, with all of these personal attacks flying around, people who were, say, of the Whig Party hated the Democratic newspapers and despised the Democratic editors. So it really was the people of that party who were supporting, you know, the people of the Whig Party supported the Whig newspapers, people of the Democratic Party supported the Democratic newspapers.
You know, if you were on the fence you might pick up both to try to see what’s going on and make a decision, but more often than not, yeah, you were preaching to the choir. You were talking to the people of your own party, especially when you get into those third-party presses, as I’ve done a lot of research on.
Ken Ward: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. So, let’s talk about that, right? Um, you’ve done a lot of research into this 1844 election. It draws in one of those third-party presses and then sort of a special interest press as well, the abolitionist press. And when we’re going to bring in this abolitionist press with this election, we’re going to need to set the ground for that as well. What was the abolitionist press? How does special interest presses kind of interact with the partisan press?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Well, the abolitionist press, the main purpose of it was to be against slavery. And when you pick up any issue of an abolitionist newspaper, it’s going to be talking about policies, excuse me, potential policies that might be anti-slavery. It’s going to be talking about specific instances of, you know, perhaps slaves going free and being caught and, you know, talking about how terrible these people are treated.
And so, you see a lot of things going on in these abolitionist newspapers that are trying to convince people that slavery is, is bad as a humanitarian issue, as an ethical issue, as a political issue. Uh, and then it did get into politics as there became a party that was dedicated to anti-slavery.
Ken Ward: And so what did this battle look like, right? So, in 1844, who are the players involved? You’ve mentioned the Whigs and the Democrats. Uh, we have this abolitionist press. Who’s the candidate, though?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: So, the candidate for the Liberty Party was James Birney. He was a really interesting guy because he was actually born in the South. He was born in Kentucky, but, and he had held slaves.
His family had held slaves, but he had always felt really uneasy about it. And so, as he got into politics himself, he was very much into politics. He was mayor of Huntsville, Alabama, of all places for a little while, but as time went on, he really decided that, you know, slavery is, is bad. This is not something that people should be doing. It’s, as I said, it’s a humanitarian issue.
It’s an ethical issue. It’s a moral issue. Um, and so he actually started an abolitionist newspaper in Ohio before he really got into politics. But there was a lot that happened in the anti-slavery society that he became a part of. Some people really wanted anti-slavery to stay out of politics and to be more of, of a moral reform.
But Birney was part of this group along with Gerrit Smith and some others who felt that the ballot box was the place to, to have that moral reformation, to elect people who were going to enact policies that would prevent the spread of slavery as well as end the existence of slavery. And so, yeah, James Birney decided to run for president for the first time in 1840. That didn’t go so great.
Nobody knew who the Liberty Party was. Nobody knew who Birney was, but by 1844, people had heard of him. People had heard of the Liberty Party and what they were doing, and so he actually had a little bit more success then.
Ken Ward: And so, in 1844, we also have, I mean, this is deep into, it’s at least, you know, a decade into the era that we might call, right, if we go one beyond the partisan era and the textbooks were getting into that, in that popular press, right?
Or the penny press, excuse me, the penny press. Um, and so we’ve got a lot of moving pieces here in terms of what the partisan press looks like, these other types of newspapers. But we have this Democratic press machinery and this Whig press machinery. What did those two parties look like in terms of their machinery? And then how did they act in this election?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: So, really the partisan press didn’t change. You did have a new kind of press that as I mentioned earlier was more independent. You know, they still talked politics, too, and they still endorsed political candidates and such, but that wasn’t the main focus. The partisan press was still very much alive, very much well. And so, you had this Democratic press that, in this particular election, tried to associate the Whig Party with abolition.
So the Democratic Party was trying to get the voters who saw abolitionism as a threat while at the same time, the Whigs, even though they were anti-slavery, they were trying to distance themselves from abolition as being a little bit too radical. So you had both of these parties pointing to the Liberty Party as these radicals while still trying to associate the Liberty Party with each other.
So, even though the Democrats weren’t really considered anti-slavery per se, the Whigs still found a way of associating them with the Liberty Party in part by saying, by accusing Birney of being a Democrat. It certainly didn’t help that Michigan where he was living at the time actually nominated him as a Democratic candidate for Congress, more or less without his consent.
So there were just some really weird things going on where rather than really treating the Liberty Party as its own thing, they tried to associate the Liberty Party with their opponent in just saying, look, they’re both bad.
Ken Ward: Well, and you bring up a couple of really interesting examples in your research and you’ve just identified one of those, right? I thought it was really interesting that the locals nominated Birney for the, what was it, Michigan state legislature or something like that?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Right.
Ken Ward: Um, and it almost seemed as though, I mean, this, this read just like fake news, right? Like it’s a dangerous term to use, but it seemed like a sort of a staged event to set up a press attack almost, right? Nominating him so that the press could attack him. I don’t know if it was that, you know, plain and that intentional in what they were doing, but it seemed ready made for this sort of media spectacle that followed.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Yeah. And I don’t think it, I don’t think it actually was that particular intent. The thing is Birney was very connected and so locally, he was seen as someone who was dependable, someone who was wise in terms of politics, someone who would, would serve in the best interest of the local constituents. So, it just so happened that it was the Democrats who nominated him.
Ken Ward: Interesting.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: But I don’t think it was intended to raise the sort of ruckus that it did.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, and you brought up other examples in your research as well. You had a, what was it, Birney, there was this rumor that Birney had conceded and decided to support Polk, right? One of the presidential nominees.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Right. [Laughs]
Ken Ward: Also, the Democrats and the Liberty Party must be colluding, right?
Um, so other cases separate from, from that earlier one in Michigan but that also pointed to the press creating these, these sort of ideas or these events to use them as attacks in this partisan model.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Right. And so, some of the things that the newspaper said definitely were false, definitely were fabricated, and that did actually happen a lot. So, when newspapers couldn’t find something truthful to smear the opposing candidate or an opposing editor or an opposing party, they did fib a little bit, seize on things that people would believe and spread them.
Ken Ward: Sure. So, what about that, that third party? Right? What about the Liberty Party? Uh, what did, did they have press machinery? How, how did they manipulate or sort of rally their own newspapers in support of Birney?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: They absolutely did have their own press machinery. As I mentioned, Birney himself was somewhat of a newspaper man. He started his own abolitionist newspaper in Ohio, but there were other newspapers, other anti-slavery newspapers that chose to become party newspapers to support the Liberty Party, to support Birney.
And there were other newspapers that actually, this happened every election where new newspapers would pop up, basically just for that election to support a specific candidate, to support a specific ticket. And then they would go away after that election was over. So that, that happened with this election too where some newspapers popped up just to support Birney for this election. And they operated very much the same way as the Democratic and the Whig newspapers did.
They, you know, attacked the Democrats, they attacked the Whigs. They did everything that they could to distance the Liberty Party from those other parties while the Whigs were trying to associate Birney with the Democrats, and the Democrats were trying to put the Whigs and the Liberty Party together. Um, so the Liberty Party felt like they had to separate themselves and point out all of the drawbacks of these other parties often in the same vitriolic way that the Democratic and Whig papers had always done.
Ken Ward: Interesting. So, you mentioned earlier that, that you know, scholars have kind of talked about how well this, this partisan press idea fits within an era, whether it’s really a clearly defined era, especially the end of it, right? If it starts around the end of the revolution, right, start of the United States. Where does it end? Where does it end? In your opinion, does it, is there anywhere that we can draw a line and say, this is the end of the partisan era?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Yes and no, because honestly there are newspapers, there are TV stations, there are radio stations that really remain partisan you know, to this day. In fact, there are arguments to be made that we have almost returned in some ways, some media outlets have really returned to the hyper-partisanship that we saw in the 19th century. I think there probably was an era in the 20th century where it was more – objectivity was more valued and it was more about finding truth about being a watchdog of government as a whole, rather than trying to support specific political parties or specific, specific political candidates.
But I don’t think partisanship ever really went away.
Ken Ward: Hmm. And what, so, so you think objectivity was maybe the curb in the 20th century that may have, if we’re thinking about sort of the strength of partisanship in the American press, the rise of objectivity for a number of reasons, that may have depressed the level of partisanship in the U.S. press?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: I think so. And if you think about, you know, the Watergate era, when investigative journalism was really at the forefront and you saw, you know, so many journalists trying to follow in the footsteps of, of those that had exposed Nixon the whole plot, you know, really journalism became revered then as being truthful, as being the purveyor of truth.
Um, and you can even go back further, you know, to the age of muckrakers, where it was really more about exposing the ills of society, perhaps in the Progressive Era. So there definitely were times where that seeking of truth, where, you know, that exposing the ills of society, exposing the downfalls of politics, exposing, you know, these scandals and these issues and how politicians weren’t helping the people trying to suggest reforms where, yeah, really, newspapers as a whole became more reformist, more like the abolitionist press and less like the traditional partisan press of the 19th century.
Ken Ward: Interesting. I’m going to ask you a sort of a dangerous question here, but I, you seem, you know, of all the folks I’ve interviewed on the show, you seem uniquely posed to answer based on your knowledge of this earlier partisan era. You know, looking forward, you’ve talked a little bit about, you know, some of the trends that we can see and the argument that could be made that we’ve entered at least an era of renewed partisanship or heightened partisanship.
Where do you see us going? What do you see as a natural progression for these trends we see now for the next ten or so years? Should we expect it to be more partisan based on the trends we see now and based on the way that the partisan era of the past came to be, what can that tell us about what we can expect in the future?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: I would say for the time being especially, you know, having the internet, having the ability for people, just about anybody to start some sort of media outlet. And we’ve seen it a lot, especially following this past election with certain political entities, you know, making their own spaces to promote their own ideas, to promote, you know, their own candidates.
So I see for the foreseeable future this heightened partisanship is going to stick around. But if you think about kind of the ebbs and flows in the past, I’m really hoping that, you know, journalists will rally. You know, at this particular point in time, there’s a lot of distrust of the media, of the mainstream media, but I think it, it could be an opportunity for journalism to now step up, especially as we see so many more nonprofit news sources coming about.
You know, they’re not really beholden to anyone, not beholden to advertisers. So, I’m really hoping that more of these journalistic entities will step up and do more of that watchdog role, do more of that investigative journalism, do more of that exposing that we saw in the muckraking era and then again, you know, later on in the 20th century.
And maybe that will rise again. Maybe objectivity will rise again. That’s my hope, anyway.
Ken Ward: Well, thank you for being hopeful on that question. I do appreciate it. [Laughs] That’s what I was hoping to hear, something like that. Uh, we’ve got one last question, Erika. You’re returning to the show, so you’ve answered this before, but I’m interested to hear what you have this time, have to say this time around. In your opinion, why does journalism history matter?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: I feel, I think, even more strongly about journalism history now than I did when I previously did the show. You know, with this pandemic happening, I’ve been looking at a lot of things about why history matters, not just journalism history, but why history matters, and you cannot separate history from journalism. When you think about how historians of the future are going to look back at this pandemic, a lot of times what they’re going to be looking at is, you know, what did the media do?
Um, how did the media cover this event? How were journalists reflective of what was going on in this particular time? You know, journalists became essential workers, you know? They became an essential part of who informed the public of all of these things happening.
And so, in preserving the media of this time, we’re preserving the story of this crisis period. So those, you know, 50 years on down the road, when they’re looking back at this pandemic, you know, they can look at the front page of the New York Times that had the names of the first 100,000 people who perished from the coronavirus. It is so necessary, you know, journalism is so necessary.
And so, I think journalism history is so necessary, you know, to be able to tell these stories not just the broader stories, but those local stories, you know, the things that were going on in, in communities, you know, those marginalized voices. I saw a lot of instances of former students of mine and other journalists that I know going that extra mile to try to make sure that, that those marginalized voices were being heard over these past couple of years. It’s been really inspiring, and I hope that historians of the future will look back at that and see what, how integral journalists were to society at this crisis point.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Erika, thank you again so much for being on the show. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Me too. Thanks for having me so much.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. And you can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Goodnight and good luck.”